A Voice From Shearith Israel: The Grandees

by Marc D. Angel

Few events in Jewish history contain as much dramatic and emotional power as the return of Marranos to Judaism. Raised as Catholics, the Marranos of the Iberian Peninsula enjoyed many benefits denied to the Jews of the world. When ultimately they returned to their ancestral faith, they brought with them a rich cultural background and a feeling of aristocracy. It is rare in our history to find such a group which Professor Benardete has called, "an elite without a folk."

It is not surprising, therefore, that the communities established by ex-Marranos have been the subject of numerous studies. There is a natural fascination attached to them. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogues which they founded are saturated with religious and historical profundity, reflecting the Marranos' odyssey back to Judaism and their struggle to keep Jewish life vital.

Stephen Birmingham's book, "The Grandees, America's Sephardic Elite, "attempts to describe the life of ex-Marranos in America. He shows some of their contributions to American life, and depicts their attitudes towards other Jews and towards gentiles. First arriving in New York in 1654, the "new" Jews established various communities in colonial America.

Since Birmingham's book is popular and unscholarly, it is reaching a large audience. He is succeeding in making the public aware of the existence of Sephardim and also in pointing out the important role Jews played throughout America's history. These are necessary tasks. However, since "The Grandees" is not at all a scholarly work, it is doomed to a rather short life. The author is certainly no authority on Sephardic history. His book is plagued with factual inaccuracies and poor historical perspectives. Unfortunately, many Jews and non-Jews are reading the book and are having their opinions molded by it because they know little or nothing about Sephardim. Though the book will soon be forgotten, a residue of erroneous ideas may remain in people's minds. The purpose of this review is to indicate certain of Birmingham's major errors, and to correct some of his historical inaccuracies.

"His book is plagued with factual inaccuracies and poor historical perspectives. Unfortunately, many Jews and non-Jews are reading the book and are having their opinions molded by it because they know little or nothing about Sephardim."

First of all, Birmingham overstates the exclusiveness of the Sephardim (pp. 131-132). In Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the City of New York, founded in 1654, Sephardim and Ashkenazim cooperated well with each other from the earliest days of the Synagogue's history. By 1730, when the first synagogue was built on Mill Street, Ashkenazim already outnumbered Sephardim. In 1729, when the synagogue was under construction, Moses Gomez, a Sephardi, was Parnas for half of the year, and Jacob Franks, an Ashkenazi, was Parnas for the other half. The records of Congregation Shearith Israel do not bear out the idea that Sephardim were aloof and haughty to the Ashkenazim, but rather that the two groups worked together for the betterment of the Congregation. It is important to realize that from 1654-1825, there was no separate Ashkenazic synagogue in New York City. All Jews were welcome members of Shearith Israel, and all followed the Sephardic minhag.

Birmingham is especially insensitive and inaccurate in his chapter "An Altogether Different Sort." His assertion that the Sephardim who left Spain in 1492 were poor "riffraff" is not only an offense to Levantine Sephardim, but is an offense to truth. Birmingham interprets the expulsion from Spain as an economic matter: the wealthy and sophisticated Jews could manage to stay, while the poor and uncouth had to leave (pp. 330-331). But what about the religious aspect? Did not the pious and learned Jews leave Spain rather than forsake their faith? Did not the most courageous and self-sacrificing Jews search for new homes? The exiles who left Spain remaining faithful to their God must be counted among the greatest Jews in history. By misrepresenting the background of Levantine Sephardim, the author has slandered tens of thousands of people. How can he atone for this unless he publishes a repudiation of that chapter?

That the Sephardic exiles were indeed cultured and learned, is amply documented. The Sultan invited them to the Ottoman Empire because he knew their potential value to his domain. Wherever the Sephardim went they were respected. Solomon Rosanes writes: "The name of Sephardi was esteemed by all Jews in all lands of their dispersion. (The exiled Sephardim) barely set foot on Turkish soil when the native Jews not only received them with open arms and signs of friendship as coreligionists, but they esteemed them further for the height of their spirit and wisdom (Dibrei Yemei Yisrael Betugramah, vol 1, p.59). "To marry into a Sephardic family was considered a noteworthy accomplishment. In the course of centuries, the Levantine Sephardim did undergo a cultural erosion, but the causes and extent of that erosion are subjects that require much research. (See Professor Benardete's chapter on "Cultural Erosion," in Hispanic Culture and Character of the Sephardic Jews.) It must be remembered that the Levantine Sephardim established and maintained a number of outstanding communities in spite of a general cultural decline. Communities such as Constantinople, Salonika, and Rhodes were centers of great scholarship up through the twentieth century.

Birmingham characterizes the Levantine Sephardim as being "hyper-ritualistic, more orthodox than the orthodox, their way being all but comprehensible to others (p. 332)." Apparently basing himself on information culled from an article on Sephardic cooking in Gourmet Magazine----obviously a ludicrous source for accurate historical information----Birmingham displays his ignorance of the life and culture of the Levantine Sephardim. (See my article, "Sephardic Culture in America," in the March-April issue of "Jewish Life.")

In the early twentieth century, large numbers of Levantine Jews arrived in America. Birmingham implies that when they came into contact with the old Sephardic synagogues, the Levantines were looked down upon. "The two Sephardic strains enjoyed a truce that was, at best, uneasy (p.340)." The amazing thing, though, is not that there may have been some clash between groups of very different cultural and economic backgrounds. The great wonder is that Spanish and Portuguese synagogues were able to absorb and assist the newcomers so well. In Shearith Israel, for example, much was done for the immigrants. The work of the Sisterhood of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of the City of New York on behalf of the Levantine Sephardim is well known. (See a History of the Broome and Allen Boys Association, by David Barocas, pp. 8-11.) The minutes of the Trustees of Shearith Israel reflect not only a concern to help, but record many gifts the Congregation made towards their advancement. (See An Old Faith in the New World, by David and Tomar de Sola Pool, pp.443-444.) The tireless efforts of a "grandee" like Henry S. Hendricks, ignored by Birmingham, are certainly appreciated by the members of the Sephardic community of New York.

Birmingham writes that Shearith Israel "is splintered and factionalized, split down the middle between the Old Guard and Levantine newcomers...(p. 344)." This statement is false, both groups are represented on the Board of Trustees and on the list of officers of the Congregation, and work together for the advancement of Shearith Israel. All are proud to be part of this historic Congregation. Birmingham is so eager to show that the "Grandees" are aloof and snobby, that he ignores reality. He interprets things as he wants them to be, not as they are.

"Birmingham is so eager to show that the "Grandees" are aloof and snobby, that he ignores reality. He interprets things as he wants them to be, not as they are."

Birmingham errs when he describes an old Spanish calendar on a wall in Shearith Israel which "marks off the hour, day, and week with the letters H, D, and S -- for hora, dia, semana (p. 345)." He uses this as an example of a nostalgic sense of traditionalism -- almost of a fear to let time pass. The absurdity of this statement is that Birmingham was not looking at a calendar, but at an 'Omer Board. The letters H, D, and S, stand for Homer, Dia, and Semana. The 'Omer Board is used to count the days of the 'Omer between Pessah and Shabuoth. This is another instance where Birmingham interprets things to fit into his own preconceived ideas.

The general mood Birmingham creates is that Shearith Israel is a grand but sleepy Congregation. It clings to tradition and dreads the future. He also implies that the best days of the "Grandees" are long gone. His misconceptions about Shearith Israel and the old Sephardim are easily refuted by facts. This Congregation and the Sold Sephardim have been instrumental in the founding and /or developing of the following institutions in the twentieth: New York Board of Rabbis, the National Jewish Welfare Board, Joint Distribution Committee, New York Federation of Philanthropies, Jewish Board of Education, Union of Sephardic Congregations, The Jewish Theological Seminary, The Synagogue Council of America, The National Conference of Christians and Jews, and others. Recently this Congregation has cooperated with other Sephardic congregations in helping to establish the Sephardic Studies Program of Yeshiva University.

There are few, if any, congregations in this country that can match Shearith Israel's record of public service. Rather than let that tradition freeze us, it spurs us on to new endeavors and accomplishments.

This review, of course, cannot undo Birmingham's error. "The Grandees" should teach Mr. Birmingham and other authors not to write about subjects which they do not adequately understand.

Marc D. Angel

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